Understanding Liberia Dance..

Photo Courtesy of NNN - Traditional festival dance in Upper Lofa, Liberia

Liberia is a county of many different tribes and ethnic groups. It was able to resist colonization from the outside world until America began to resettle slaves there from 1816 to 1912. In 1989, Liberia saw the start of a brutal, decades-long civil war through which its dance tradition continued to thrive through its citizens at home and in refugees abroad who were forced to flee their homes, relatives and culture. In Liberia’s era of redevelopment, dance is used in the homeland and worldwide as a tool for education on Liberian culture, tradition and history.

Dance in Every Part of Life

According to Won-Ldy Paye, a well-known entertainer from northeast Liberia, “Liberian art, music, dance and storytelling are a lifestyle. They are sociological and cultural studies of Liberian people.” Liberian dance tells the traditions, rites of passage and everyday life of the tribes of Liberia. Dances vary from tribe to tribe. However, all Liberian dance has the mark of intense energy and passion in its steps and performance. Liberians dance in every facet of life, from when they are babies held in the dancing arms of their mothers until their death. Liberians retain a thriving dance tradition that has seen decades of civil crisis and the burdens and benefits of redevelopment

  Mask and Secret Society Dances

Masks serve as an important part of Liberian dance, linking the performers to spiritual deities and ancestors both. In this type of dance, the performer’s identity is unknown, as she is said to become the spirit of the mask. There is no separation between the dancer and the spirit. Some of the mask dances are held secret and dear, and only a chosen few participate. These are reflective of the secret societies Liberia has had throughout its history. About half of Liberian citizens are members of one of these societies, whose workings are held very secret. Liberian children inducted into these societies are sent to respective “bush” schools for anywhere from a few months to several years to learn workings of the society and skills useful in adulthood.

 The Dan Mask

This mask is worn during a festival in Northern Liberia by the Gio people. Farmers and hunters, many Gio men belong to a secret society which inducts them into adulthood, as most Liberian secret societies do. The Dan mask, along with the Glegben (stilt) mask dance has complex hand feet movement, and there is much non-verbal communication between the dancer and accompanying drummer. Oftentimes, the two take turns leading one another.

  The Vai Mask

In Monrovia, Liberia, three tribes take part in this dance: Gola, Vai and Mende. This masked spirit is seen as very wild, roaming everywhere and requesting whatever he wants (it is a male mask). The spirit is called Nafai, the frisky devil. This mask dance reflects the spirit’s whimsy and troublemaking tendencies.

  The Yan Mask

Also referred to as the Gbetu, this mask also belongs to the three tribes of Monrovia. In the Vai tradition, the Yan mask dance is a rite of passage for both boys and girls being inducted into the respective secret societies. The dance is performed during graduation and is supposed to illustrate what the pupil has learned at bush school. The dancer will ask the drummer to follow her throughout the dance.

By Darlington Micah Email: darlinmgtonmicah44@gmail.com